Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson, Toronto, April 1990

BRITISH WRITER JEANETTE WINTERSON OBE HAD BEEN BUOYED ALONG BY SEVERAL LITERARY PRIZES by the time I photographed her in the back of a rock club on Queen street at the beginning of the '90s. I had not read any of her books at the time, but she had a stellar reputation; I still can't remember why I shot her here, and not in the usual spot for author portraits - a room in a good hotel, or an empty boardroom at the offices of her publisher.

According to the Big Ledger, I sent four prints from this shoot to Details magazine, but whether one of them actually ran is a question I can't answer. 1990 was probably the single busiest year of my career, and if I ever had a tearsheet for this job, I didn't keep it.

Jeanette Winterson, Toronto, April 1990

Winterson is a fascinating writer. I can't help but think of her as a product of the '80s - experimental without being academic, interested in genres but not in thrall to them. The book I've enjoyed the most was her "sci-fi" novel, The Stone Gods, which is actually four stories under one title with recurring themes and characters, set everywhere from the 18th century to the near future to what is either the very distant future or a very distant past.

Her inventiveness and superb prose style is summed up by a single paragraph, where she sends her main character (and, I always presume, alter ego) from a collapsing Earth on a space ship to a distant planet colony. Most writers, in love with the technology of space travel, would spend endless pages detailing the hardware and science in an attempt to give some cinematic vision of the experience. Winterson, to her credit, dispenses with the whole thing in one short, telegraphic paragraph:
Cheers, tears, saxophones, catwalk, celebrities, webcam, blog, helicopters, live coverage, pom-poms, confetti, clock, countdown, blastoff. Yes!
I wish other writers would be so concise and original. There are some things we've read too many times. Any of the four sections of the book could be the basis of an interesting movie, but any film that tried to contain all four would be a mess.

Jeanette Winterson, Toronto, April 1990

I photographed Winterson backstage at the Rivoli, a now-venerable club on Queen West that I have been seeing shows at for three decades. I set up my Metz flash with an umbrella bounce, but far enough away from my subject that the light has a harder edge. I'm pretty sure this was taken in the space between the dressing room and the back door of the club, where they stack the empty beer cases and kegs. It's just a few feet away from where I took James Chance's portrait just a year ago.

Winterson's androgynous image is what makes the shot; thanks to the setting it looks less like a contemporary author photo than a candid of some angry young man, taken in a Soho alleyway when MacMillan was prime minister. (Ironically, this stretch of Queen West was known at the time as Soho, named for a nearby street, rather than its current realtor-friendly title.) I've always liked the shot but I've never known what to do with it. According to the writer, my friend Denis Seguin, Details never used my shots, so these have never been published until today.

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